Most people associate ‘inflation’ with rising prices, but the disease goes much deeper than that. Inflation is a phenomenon wherein money becomes so abundant it disrupts relative price formation and hence interferes with the vital transmission of information about the state of the countless interactions of supply and demand, plenty and scarcity, which take place on the market. As the fever rises, mistakes accumulate, conflicts intensify, timings clash, finances become stretched, and coherence is lost. A rising price is one thing. Prices -plural- rising at varying speeds and in an ever less predictable manner is a much more dangerous pathology.
An uneasy calm has descended on the markets since the end of the first quarter put a stop to the heavy liquidation in bonds and some gained the sense that commodities were perhaps a little overcooked. The rebalancing and retracements those two entailed could yet run further, but we very much doubt that we’ve seen the last of the inflationary wave.
Though a lot of hot money was poured into the trade in the last quarter of 2020, there is still much reluctance on the part of economists – always prone to a spot of Under-consumption fallacy – to wholly embrace the idea that prices are beginning to rise and that the path ahead is likely to be an inflationary one. That path will inevitably not be smooth, nor its ascent uninterrupted, but it is hard to see where we slow the climb or take a different turning – or even that sufficient will exists to choose that alternative were it ever to come up on our satnav.
Inflation, Milton Friedman famously said, is a monetary phenomenon. But it is also one given the readiest of outlets through recourse to what we call ‘fiscal’ policy – i.e., by spendthrift governments borrowing money created at their call and forced into the system by means of warfare, welfare, contracting, cronyism, bureaucratic expansion and plain old boondogglery. Arguably, this is where we find ourselves today, in a world where supply is no longer likely to meet demand as abundantly and as effortlessly as has been the case these past twenty years.
China’s ports are humming, its exports booming to the point that it is causing evident stress in maritime trade. Freight rates are soaring and dockside space is becoming limited, threatening production and raising costs across the board. Despite the macro strength – and the vote of confidence this has received from forex and equity markets – the last few weeks have been testing ones in credit. Once more the nation’s vast superstructure of debt has creaked and groaned – but just about held firm, once more. One of these fine days…
Markets seem happy for now to focus on the carrot of a vaccine while ignoring the stick of the further severe restrictions to life and liberty being implemented while we await its delivery. Whether or not it offers a release from bondage, the state’s rediscovered taste for authoritarianism will, however, take some good time to dispel, while its corollary – the move toward taking an ever greater role amid the wreckage of the private economy – is being pursued with relish. Whatever the sloganizing, this is very unlikely to Build anything Back Better – only dearer and scarcer.
Though the latest set of profit data for China’s industrial concerns were outwardly positive, there are still many unresolved questions hanging over both the economy and the country’s politics, some of which we examine here. None of that is likely to deter bond investors and ETF buyers, of course, since their principal concern will be to bring their holdings into line with a major benchmark index which has just created a vast source of funds for Xi Jinping’s minions to exploit. We ask: should they?
With the latest CBO estimates for the US Federal budget for August just in, we are again in a position to take stock of the scale of the burden which the COVID-19 lockdowns and more general restrictions have imposed upon the nation’s finances. It does not make for happy reading.
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It’s not just the leaves that often turn when the year begins, with gathering pace, to slip towards its chilly end. Markets often do, too.
Given this backdrop, the sell-off in the Nasdaq – in the marvelled-at ‘Growth’ stocks, in the FAANGs, and in Tesla – comes at a moment which is particularly intriguing for reasons which go far beyond whatever coup SoftBank may or may not have attempted and whether those irritating Lockdown Livermores have finally gotten their comeuppance.
As a sort of Keynes-manqué, Stephanie Kelton’s moment in the limelight is being granted her for much the same reason as was that of her more illustrious predecessor: she is telling free-spending politicians what they always want to hear – viz., that their habitual incontinence is statesmanship of the highest order.
With our good professor never missing an opportunity to remind anyone and everyone that her book – a veritable almanac of economic hocus-pocus – tops the non-fiction charts (surely a gross miscategorization if ever there was), we must therefore re-emphasize our view that the REAL peril of Magic Money Tree economics – aka MMT – is what it means for the private sphere in general and the scope for genuine entrepreneurship in particular, NOT whether it causes prices to rise or not. The question is one of liberty, not inflation; real prosperity, not growth.